Nowadays, death has been removed as much as possible from daily life, but in Victorian times, in the US as well as in Victoriaâ€™s Britain, death was a frequent visitor. In this passage from Chapter 17 of Huckleberry Finn, Twain brilliantly conveys the Victorian obsession with death.
from Chapter 17, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Huck is describing pictures in the home of the Grangerford family.
They had pictures hung on the walls â€” mainly Washingtons and Lafayettes, and battles, and Highland Marys, and one called “Signing the Declaration.” There was some that they called crayons, which one of the daughters which was dead made her own self when she was only fifteen years old. They was different from any pictures I ever see before -Â blacker, mostly, than is common.
One was a woman in a slim black dress, belted small under the armpits, with bulges like a cabbage in the middle of the sleeves, and a large black scoop-shovel bonnet with a black veil, and white slim ankles crossed about with black tape, and very wee black slippers, like a chisel, and she was leaning pensive on a tombstone on her right elbow, under a weeping willow, and her other hand hanging down her side holding a white handkerchief and a reticule, and underneath the picture it said “Shall I Never See Thee More Alas.”
Another one was a young lady with her hair all combed up straight to the top of her head, and knotted there in front of a comb like a chair-back, and she was crying into a handkerchief and had a dead bird laying on its back in her other hand with its heels up, and underneath the picture it said “I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas.”
There was one where a young lady was at a window looking up at the moon, and tears running down her cheeks; and she had an open letter in one hand with black sealing wax showing on one edge of it, and she was mashing a locket with a chain to it against her mouth, and underneath the picture it said “And Art Thou Gone Yes Thou Art Gone Alas.” These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little they always give me the fan-tods. Everybody was sorry she died, because she had laid out a lot more of these pictures to do, and a body could see by what she had done what they had lost. But I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard.
She was at work on what they said was her greatest picture when she took sick, and every day and every night it was her prayer to be allowed to live till she got it done, but she never got the chance. It was a picture of a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with her hair all down her back, and looking up to the moon, with the tears running down her face, and she had two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon -Â and the idea was to see which pair would look best, and then scratch out all the other arms; but, as I was saying, she died before she got her mind made up, and now they kept this picture over the head of the bed in her room, and every time her birthday come they hung flowers on it. Other times it was hid with a little curtain. The young woman in the picture had a kind of a nice sweet face, but there was so many arms it made her look too spidery, seemed to me.
This young girl kept a scrap-book when she was alive, and used to paste obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering in it out of the Presbyterian Observer, and write poetry after them out of her own head. It was very good poetry. This is what she wrote about a boy by the name of Stephen Dowling Bots that fell down a well and was drownded:
ODE TO STEPHEN DOWLING BOTS, DEC’D
And did young Stephen sicken, And did young Stephen die? And did the sad hearts thicken, And did the mourners cry?
No; such was not the fate of Young Stephen Dowling Bots; Though sad hearts round him thickened, `Twas not from sickness’ shots.
No whooping-cough did rack his frame, Nor measles drear with spots; Not these impaired the sacred name Of Stephen Dowling Bots.
Despised love struck not with woe That head of curly knots, Nor stomach troubles laid him low, Young Stephen Dowling Bots.
O no. Then list with tearful eye, Whilst I his fate do tell. His soul did from this cold world fly By falling down a well.
They got him out and emptied him; Alas it was too late; His spirit was gone for to sport aloft In the realms of the good and great.
If Emmeline Grangerford could make poetry like that before she was fourteen, there ain’t no telling what she could a done by and by. Buck said she could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn’t ever have to stop to think. He said she would slap down a line, and if she couldn’t find anything to rhyme with it would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead. She warn’t particular; she could write about anything you choose to give her to write about just so it was sadful. Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her “tribute” before he was cold. She called them tributes. The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker -Â the undertaker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme for the dead person’s name, which was Whistler. She warn’t ever the same after that; she never complained, but she kinder pined away and did not live long. Poor thing, many’s the time I made myself go up to the little room that used to be hers and get out her poor old scrap-book and read in it when her pictures had been aggravating me and I had soured on her a little. I liked all that family, dead ones and all, and warn’t going to let anything come between us. Poor Emmeline made poetry about all the dead people when she was alive, and it didn’t seem right that there warn’t nobody to make some about her now she was gone; so I tried to sweat out a verse or two myself, but I couldn’t seem to make it go somehow. They kept Emmeline’s room trim and nice, and all the things fixed in it just the way she liked to have them when she was alive, and nobody ever slept there.